Commentary - Guyana and Regional Issues

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Venezuela objects to World Court involvement to solve border controversy

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted February 2nd. 2018

As expected, the Venezuelan government rejected the January 30 decision of the UN Secretary General (UNSG) to refer the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the World Court.

When the UNSG announced his proposal in December 2016, the Venezuelan government at first expressed its satisfaction, but within a month it backtracked and insisted on the continuation of the Good Offices process, which had failed to produce any tangible forward momentum for the past quarter of a century. Guyana, since 2014, had informed the USSG of its decision to abandon the Good Offices process and urged the involvement of the ICJ-a proposal now opposed by Venezuela. Therefore, that country's recent statement on January 31 has not come as a surprise to anyone.

Interestingly, the statement by the UNSG also stated that the two countries could benefit from the continued Good Offices of the United Nations. This conclusion was arrived at even though the UNSG admitted that the Good Offices made no significant progress during 2017 towards arriving at an agreement for the solution of the controversy. Clearly, by interjecting the use of "the continued Good Offices," he seems to be attempting to appease the Venezuelan government which wants the continuation of that process.

Guyana's foreign ministry welcomed the UNSG's decision in a communique:

"Guyana will not allow factors extraneous to the controversy to influence its referral to the Court, but it will continue the advancement of peaceful relations with Venezuela whose people are the brothers and sisters of Guyanese. In this context, Guyana acknowledges the Secretary General's suggestions for the immediate future."

On the other hand, Caracas expressed concern over the decision in an official foreign ministry statement, and insisted on the recognition of the Geneva Agreement to resolve the dispute.

"It is fitting to wonder the reasons why they recommended the International Court of Justice to two states that do not recognize its jurisdictions, and given that the Geneva Agreement contemplates the political mechanisms for the solution to this territorial controversy," the ministry stated.

But, the Geneva Agreement of 1966 conferred upon the Secretary-General the power and responsibility to choose a means of peaceful settlement from amongst those contemplated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations. The Geneva Agreement, signed by the Venezuelan, British and Guyanese government, also provides that if the means so chosen does not lead to a solution of the controversy, the Secretary-General will choose another means of settlement. In this respect, the last means in Article 33 is judicial settlement, which clearly points to a judicial settlement by the ICJ.

Interestingly, by signing the treaty, the Venezuelan government agreed fully to the list of methods the UNSG can choose for the solution of the controversy. By now announcing that it is rejecting the ICJ as a means to a solution, the Venezuelan government is actually opposing what it agreed to in 1966-and, hence, rejecting the Geneva Agreement. Is it now insinuating that the Geneva Agreement also is "null and void"?

Why doesn't Venezuela want the controversy to be handled by the ICJ? It claims that the 1899 arbitral award that defined the boundary between the two countries is "null and void" but, at the same time, refuses to present its case to show such nullity. The ICJ will surely be an ideal venue to make its argument.

Significantly, the Venezuelan government has raised the issue of its non-compliance with the rulings of the ICJ of which it is not a state-party. Obviously, therefore, it presents the spectre of a refusal to accept the decision of the ICJ if it deems it unfavourable. If this occurs, it would mean that the border controversy will again continue for an indefinite period.

However, Venezuela is not too interested in the legal aspects; it hangs on to the idea of a settlement by which it wants Guyana to unilaterally cede nearly two-thirds of its land territory. Actually, Venezuela's demand has grown progressively over the years. It requested before the arbitral tribunal all the territory west of the Essequibo River with the exception of an area marked by a line stretching from the mouth of the Moruca River to the junction of the Mazaruni and the Essequibo. The claim also included the Essequibo watershed south of the junction of the Essequibo and the Rupununi rivers.

Today, the claim has extended to all territory west of the Essequibo River, including the islands in the river. It has also been expanded to include Guyana's maritime region rich with oil deposits. And as is widely known, Venezuela seized Guyana's half of the border Ankoko Island and its armed gunboats brazenly venture into Guyana's section of the Cuyuni River.

It will be interesting to hear the response of the UNSG to the Venezuelan rebuff. At the same time, the member states of the United Nations are no doubt hoping for a judicial solution. It is possible that their quiet diplomacy can help to propel Venezuela to work along with Guyana towards this direction.

February 2, 2018

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003), Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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